I’m greeted with kisses at the gate each evening I come home from work. The gate is not to a white picket fence or a rustic ranch; it’s the one my husband constructed to separate upstairs from downstairs in our split-level suburban home. You see, it’s not my husband or our three teenagers greeting me with such open affection. It is 200 pounds of wiggling, slobbering German Shorthair Pointers: Grendel, Bo and Anubis.
Even a shorthair is a hairy dog, especially times three. They eat, tromp outside and pad about the upstairs, sharing life with my family. My kitchen is upstairs, too. It’s where the teenagers sit on the counter while I cook and my husband leaves his Red Wing boots. My house is a home; a dirty home that requires weekly deep cleaning. Therefore, I slip on the rubber gloves of the weekend warrior, battling dust bunnies and odors.
My warrior approach is fast and flawless. I can clean everything from a stone to a counter to a cradleboard to a toilet in mere hours. While my execution is spot on, my customary cleaners became suspect several years ago.
I was at a local health fair when I first encountered my community’s eco-waste center. Flipping through their handbook, I read how the center helps residents to properly dispose of weed-killer, antifreeze, mercury thermometers, kerosene and…household cleaners. For 15 years, it had seemed normal for me to purchase such cleaners in the same shopping cart as my Romaine lettuce and whole wheat bread.
After all, millions of American households clean week after week with these substances. In fact, my county estimates that my neighbors and I are all storing, on the average, three to 10 gallons of hazardous household waste in our homes. Upon disposal, we are to treat any left-over household cleaner as if it were battery acid. I am not to toss it in the trash, nor pour it down the drain, storm sewer or on the ground. This booklet made me wonder if my bottle of shower cleaner was fit to be rinsed down the drain. If my cleaners are hazardous waste, what might they be doing to me and my family?
Of course, I knew to be cautious with products like rust removers, drain and oven cleaners. I understood them to be caustic (often they contain lye or acid which can burn the skin, lungs and eyes) and even felt nervous wearing rubber gloves when the oven was in dire need of a good scrub. I also remember my grandmother’s stern warning never to mix ammonia and bleach (the resulting gas can cause severe deep tissue lung damage). But I didn’t know that solvent-based cleaners, like some furniture polishes and spot removers, were toxic. Or that common products used for all-purpose cleaning could contain Butyl Cellusolve—a known neurotoxin that damages the blood, the body’s ability to make blood, the central nervous system, kidneys and liver and is easily absorbed through the skin. Then there are the hazards to the environment: phosphates and petroleum-based cleaners. Phosphates act as a water softener in the house and a fertilizer outside. They can choke up rivers and lakes with algae.
It never occurred to me that the cough I experienced after dusting was not due to dust, but rather my cleaner. Back then, I didn’t know to read the labels beyond the prominent words like “shine” and “fresh.” I missed looking for the smaller signal words that sum up a product’s hazardous level: caution, warning, danger or poison. Look for them; they are the reason you have to dispose of these substances as hazardous waste. Also keep in mind that inactive ingredients do not have to be listed. Neither did I understand the dangers of a niggling cough until my son was diagnosed with asthma. His only symptom: a tickle of a cough before bedtime, similar to the one I experienced after dusting. While my wood cleaner merely warned of “caution,” my own cough disappeared when I tossed out the offensive product (properly disposed of it, that is).
Science of Cleaning
In 1991, Laurie Brown opened a Minneapolis store called Restore the Earth. Her most popular products were nontoxic cleaners. Inspired by the huge number of people who refilled at her store, Brown pioneered new technology with Restore Refill Stations. This allows people to reuse their original bottles of Restore Products. In fact, since their introduction in 2001, the Refill Stations have kept more than 20 tons of plastics from local landfills. She even knows customers who still use their original bottles.
Brown develops nontoxic cleaners according to the science of cleaning. To effectively clean, products need one or a combination of the following:
- Surfactant—makes water wetter to dissolve dirt.
- Solvent—dissolves grease.
- Acid—gets rid of hard water deposits.
- Alkaline—removes grease.
- Enzyme—eliminates protein-based stains.
Brown played around with the basic ingredients and gained vital feedback from a decade of store customers. She typically uses palm kernel oil in her detergents. For solvents and acids (which tend to be the most toxic of household cleaners), Brown uses nontoxic orange rind oil, soy solvent and citric acid. Soda ash is an alkaline she uses in her oven cleaner, and plant enzymes are great spot removers.
After my son was diagnosed with asthma, I tinkered with my own bit of cleaning science. Armed with the wisdom of Heloise and a recipe booklet from Dakota County, I replaced all my household cleaners. My basic nontoxic cleaning pantry includes:
- Baking soda (alkaline)
- Borax (alkaline)
- Lemon/lemon juice (acid)
- Vinegar (acid)
- Vegetable-based liquid soap (surfactant)
These substances are cheap and the recipes simple. Four tablespoons of baking soda dissolved in a quart of warm water is a basic all-purpose cleaner. An effective mold and mildew formula is 1/2 cup of borax dissolved in a gallon of boiling water. Lemon juice cleans windows. Baking soda on the carpet before vacuuming is my salvation against pet odors.
One advantage of tinkering with nontoxic cleaners is that you can choose scents. Artificial scents are disruptive. Brown says that the goal is to smell fresh and clean so she intentionally leaves her Restore Products lightly scented. Scent in her products is merely a by-product of ingredients such as the orange rind used as a solvent. Lavender is one of my favorite cleaning scents, and I simply add the essential oil to a sink full of Restore Dishwashing Soap when I am cleaning in the kitchen. My weekend cleaning system is now a combined use of homemade and purchased nontoxic cleaners.
War on Germs
But what of dog drool and a busy kitchen? Like many people who first make the switch to nontoxic cleaners, I realized that I no longer had the heavy arsenal to fight germs. We’ve been conditioned to think that the stronger the chemistry, the better the product will clean. As a manufacturer, Brown realizes that the more toxic a product, the cheaper the raw materials. She points out that most disinfectants are EPA rated insecticides. If that’s what you clean your kitchen counters with, so much for prepping your organic vegetables. Brown points out that 98 percent of all germs are removed by cleaning. In situations wherein it is necessary to disinfect, Brown advises that it be done correctly. Instead of spraying and wiping, spray and let it sit for at least five minutes. That explains the wet table tops in restaurants.
I’d like to think I get my return-home kisses each evening because my home is a safe place for my dogs and kids. Although both are my reason for weekly deep cleaning, I am comforted by the knowledge that I use products and substances that do not require hazardous waste disposal, pollute the environment or make me cough.
Charli Mills has served as marketing and member services manager for “Valley Natural Foods“https://www.valleynaturalfoods.coop/ since 2001. She writes regional articles on food, farmers and co-ops.
The following resolutions include useful tips about how to "be green" all year round.
1. Look for Recycling Opportunities: Just finished drinking a bottle of water? Instead of throwing it in the trash, look for the nearest recycling bin, or hold onto your beverage containers until you find a recycling center or get home to your curbside bin.
2. Ask for Recycling by Name: Does it ever seem like there aren't enough recycling bins . You're right and you can help change that. If your gas station or convenience store doesn't have a recycling bin, ask for one. If you ask for recycling opportunities, you'll get them (it's easier than you think). At the office? Start an office-wide recycling campaign, or put a bin next to your trash can for beverage containers and paper.
3. Remember the Other Important "R's" - Reduce and Reuse: Help to lessen the amount of waste by buying items that use little or no packaging, or "buying in bulk" which reduces unnecessary and excessive packaging. Also, find ways to use items over and over again, such as refilling a water bottle.
4. Buy Products Made From Recycled Materials: Resolve to "buy green" by purchasing at least one recycled-content product on a regular basis, such as paper towels or computer paper. Look for the recycling symbol (or "made from post-consumer material") on a wide range of products. There is a growing array of new products made from recycled beverage containers including backyard planter boxes and fleece clothing.
5. Make Your Home a Toxic-Free Environment: Keep your home healthy by reducing unnecessary toxic chemicals. Paints, solvents and other chemicals should be disposed of safely, not flushed down the toilet or poured down the drain. Did you know baking soda and vinegar substitute as great all-purpose cleaners? Other non-toxic household cleaners can be found at many stores. Cut down on pesticides and fertilizers in your garden and you'll limit what gets washed into rivers, bays and the ocean.
6. Get Out of the Car One Day a Week: Resolve to spare the air. Carpool, use public transportation or bicycle. Using alternative transportation a day or two a week is manageable, and getting out from behind the wheel can be relaxing. Plus, riding a bike fulfills the annual resolution to exercise more.
7. Start a Compost Pile to Feed Your Garden: Convert those yard clippings and vegetable peelings and even coffee grounds into nature's fertilizer for your garden. Home composters can be found at most home and garden centers. Many counties now offer discounted rates for home composters and many more counties take yard clipping "donations" for municipal compost piles that provide soil for local parks.
8. Enjoy the Great Outdoors: Visit a local, state or national park. Take some time to appreciate natural areas. Get to know some of the parks in your area and beyond. Ask about volunteer opportunities or special nature programs geared toward kids.
9. Go Local - Volunteer in Your Community: Resolve to improve your hometown environment. Sign up for the local clean-up day, tree-planting effort or community garden. Take your kids to a neighborhood creek restoration effort to show them what an ecosystem is all about. Volunteer at a local park. Adopt your own space and turn it green.
10. Conserve Energy: Cut your monthly energy bills 30 percent by replacing old equipment in your home with state-of-the-art Energy Star products. Get going on those energy-efficient home improvements you've been putting off all year. Turn off lights when you leave a room and keep the thermostat at 70 degrees or lower in cold weather months, 78 degrees or higher in the warm weather months.